One day, I was watching The Secret Life of Pets 2, and I noticed that the villain had a strong foreign accent. I am not very sure, but I guessed that it was a Slavic or Eastern European English accent. Then, I immediately recalled that many more villains in animated movies and cartoons are voiced with foreign accents (Foreign accents from the United States, where most movies are made). This was a very disturbing idea because it made me realized that TV shows and movies are still promoting, in a very subtle way for kids, ethnic stereotypes and xenophobia. No wonder why such behaviours like racism, classism, discrimination, and xenophobia are present nowadays everywhere in our globalized societies.
So, I decided to do some research to find out if what I noticed that day has been studied or noticed by someone else, previously. By doing it, I ran into an academic paper by Julia R. Dobrow and Calvin L. Gidney titled The Good, the Bad, and the Foreign: The Use of Dialect in Children’s Animated Television. Briefly, in their study, they analyzed 12 animated shows selected randomly from the TV programming in 1996 airing in the Boston area. One of their research questions was: “To what extent are dialect and gender/ethnic identification used to identify villain or hero status?” Some of their findings were that most of the TV shows use language to illustrate some quality of the character’s personality. In other words, this means that characters are identified by their voice. Therefore, a villain speaking with a foreign accent implies that having an accent is one quality or characteristic of a villain! Some of the accents identified in villains of the shows analyzed were British English, German accents, Slavic-accented English, and American English with low socioeconomic status.
I am not sure about what someone else could think about this, but for me, this is very scary and disturbing. I would like to add a more popular example, not analyzed in the previous study, one that most people might have seen, but maybe never noticed. In The Lion King (a very popular Disney movie) the villain Scar, who is the brother of Mufasa (the good guy), speaks with a British accent even though they are brothers! Why your brother who grew with you in the same territory would have a different accent? Additionally, the hyenas, Scar’s minions, speak with a mixed accent between African American or Spanish English accent. This is just an example, but I can warranty you that there are many others like the one I saw recently in The Secret Life of Pets 2. Which by the way was released in 2019! Thus, this is not an issue of the past.
This is too sad indeed, but this might be an explanation of why in a globalized world, even legal immigration is still a big problem that externalizes the xenophobia of many societies and communities. This is what animated TV shows and movies are teaching kids.
As the study mentions, kids use television not only as entertainment but also, in many cases, it is their main source of information about other cultures and members of other ethnic groups. I could not imagine the situation where an immigrant teacher comes to a classroom full of kids that their first thought will be: My teacher is a bad person because the teacher’s accent was depicted in the new Disney movie, as the way that bad people speaks!
On the other hand, this issue is an example of how racial discrimination is embedded and normalized in our systems. Maybe the perpetrators of racial homicides such as the very public cases of George Floyd and Jacob Black, learned their behaviour since they were kids. Everything has a beginning and even though we know the problem is multifactorial and very complex, what we consider an innocent movie at the end is not that innocent. Note, that I do not want to say that a single movie is responsible for the behaviour of an adult, but it is a formative contributor indeed.
You can find Julia R. Dobrow and Calvin L. Gidney’s article here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1049446?seq=1